How science happens — firefly sex studies and serendipity


Among the many treats in Carl Zimmer’s new Times piece on fireflies and sex — go, and be enchanted — I particularly liked this quick peek at how a life and a career can take a sharp turn for the most unplanned of reasons:

It was on a night much like this one in 1980 when Dr. Lewis first came under the spell of fireflies. She was in graduate school at Duke University, studying coral reef fish. Waiting for a grant to come through for a trip to Belize, she did not have much else to do but sit in her backyard in North Carolina.
“Every evening there was this incredible display of fireflies,” Dr. Lewis said. She eventually started to explore the yard, inspecting the males and females. “What really struck me was that in this one-acre area there were hundreds of males and I could only find two or three females,” she said. “I thought, “Man, this is so intense.”

She’s been doing fireflies ever since.

Wheels come off psychiatric manual; APA blames road conditions

I have suspected for some time now that the band oddly close process designed to produce the DSM-V — the diagnostic statistical manual that is psychiatry’s diagnostic guide and Bible — would create an explosion of some sort. But I didn’t think it would explode quite so soon.
As Daniel Carlat outlines in a wonderful post — a must read, very high infotainment value — this is a pretty entertaining missing match. We have Allen Frances, a prominent psychiatrist who helped produce the previous edition of the DSM, leveling some very harsh criticisms of the process designed to produce a new edition by 2012. And we have that critique answered harshly by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in a memo that essentially accuses Frances of being either stupid or a liar — and corrupt or greedy.
To wit, Frances, among other things, argues that

“The simple truth is that descriptive psychiatric diagnosis does not need and cannot support a paradigm shift. There can be no dramatic improvements in psychiatric diagnosis until we make a fundamental leap in our understanding of what causes mental disorders. The incredible recent advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and brain imaging that have taught us so much about normal brain functioning are still not relevant to the clinical practicalities of everyday psychiatric diagnosis. The clearest evidence supporting this disappointing fact is that not even one biological test is ready for inclusion in the criteria sets for DSM-5.”

He also argues that the broadening of categories underway will aggravate existing problems with overdiagnosis and overmedication:

The result would be a wholesale imperial medicalization of normality that will trivialize mental disorder and lead to a deluge of unneeded medication treatment–a bonanza for the pharmaceutical industry but at a huge cost to the new false positive “patients” caught in the excessively wide DSM-V net. They will pay a high price in side effects, dollars, and stigma, not to mentions the unpredictable impact on insurability, disability, and forensics.

The APA fires back by questioning Frances’s integrity and motives.

Continue reading →

Oliver Sacks meets Jon Stewart

Okay, Jonah saw this first — but in case you missed it there, here’s a snip from Jon Stewart interviewing Oliver Sacks about music and the brain.
This is a nice meeting. I’ve not met Stewart, but I had the pleasure to spend some time with Sacks while working on a couple stories, and he once gave me a book about Alexander Agassiz because he liked my book about Agassiz — and I’m happy to see him exert his usual charm and humor here in this Stewart segment.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Oliver Sacks
Daily Show
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Political Humor Jason Jones in Iran

Swine flu count in US hits 1 million; can’t wait till flu season!

U.S. Cases of New Flu Hit a High This Week, notes the WS Journal. Or, as the BBC puts it, US passes million swine flu cases. Effect Measure, meanwhile, ponders the flu’s course in South America, where Hospitals `Overwhelmed’ By Flu Cases In Argentina.
We have just 90 days till flu season resumes here. H5N1 considers how to get ready, including a handy hydration formula.

Do ADHD drugs give caretakers a placebo effect?


[note: addition/corrections at bottom added an hour after orig post. additions underlined. deletions struckthrough. See *]

Meet the meta-placebo: A new study suggests that ADHD meds do much of their work by producing placebo effects — and more constructive behavior — among the parents, teachers, and other caretakers of the kids actually taking the meds. Via ScienceDaily:

A recent review of research by University at Buffalo pediatric psychologists suggests that [ADHD] medication, or the assumption of medication, may produce a placebo effect — not in the children, but in their teachers, parents or other adults who evaluate them.

A placebo effect is a positive change in symptoms or behavior after a patient receives a “fake” medication or procedure; in other words, the belief can become the medicine. In this case, the review suggested that when caregivers believed their ADHD patients were receiving ADHD medication, they tended to view those children more favorably and treat them more positively, whether or not medication was actually involved.

“The act of administering medication, or thinking a child has received medication, may induce positive expectancies in parents and teachers about the effects of that medication, which may, in turn, influence how parents and teachers evaluate and behave toward children with ADHD,” said UB researcher Daniel A. Waschbusch, Ph.D., lead author of the review.

“We speculate that the perception that a child is receiving ADHD medication may bring about a shift in attitude in a teacher or caregiver. They may have a more positive view of the child, which could create a better relationship. They may praise the child more, which may induce better behavior.”

Such a placebo effect in caregivers could have both good and not-so-good results, Waschbusch added. “If teachers treat children more positively if they think they are on medication, that is a good thing. But if the child’s medication is increased because caregivers think it is effective, that may not be a good thing.”

This is not at all hard to imagine, as ADHD meds are generally prescribed because parents and teachers believe they’ll solve behavioral problems — and have a strong desire to see them work.

Continue reading →

Alarming climate change chart of the day

Paul Krugman tunes out the noise:

Temperature is a noisy time series, so if you pick and choose your dates over a short time span you can usually make whatever case you want. That’s why you need to look at longer trends and do some statistical analysis. But I thought that it would be a good thing to look at the data myself.
So here’s the average annual global temperature since 1880, shown as .01 degrees C deviation from the 1951-80 average.

What this tells me is that annual temperature is indeed noisy: there have been many large fluctuations, indeed much larger than the up-and-down in the last decade or so. But the direction of change is unmistakable if you take the longer view. The fitted line in the figure is a 3rd-degree polynomial, but any sort of smoothing would tell you that there is a massive upward trend.

Round-up: Dinos on display, soldiers at play, stereotypes at work, pharma ghosts, Iraqi snakes

Much much much ado on the web this week, on the too-many fronts I try to visit. From my list of notables:
Carl Zimmer, who clearly doesn’t sleep, writes up a nice post about a Nature paper announcing Limusaurus, a newly discovered fossil that is, Zimmer notes, is “not — I repeat NOT — the missing link between anything”– but nevertheless sheds some light on how dinos may have turned into birds (more or less). Bonus: Great pictures of Carl holding up three fingers.
Ed Yong, who seems to be drinking the same strength coffee as Carl Zimmer lately, looks at an interesting correlation: Hidden beliefs in science stereotypes predict size of gender gap across 34 countries. That is, if you think “man” when you think scientist, you probably live in a country that has large gender gaps of other types. Read the post — and take the little gender bias/stereotype test yourself online.
As if it needed more problems, a drought-stricken Iraq is confronting lots of snakes moving into town from dry riverbeds, reports SciAm.
The indefatigable Dawdy relates how New Zyprexa Documents Show Lilly Ghostwrote Zyprexa Studies. The embarrassments of Big Pharma are nearly impossible to keep up with these days, but Dawdy does his best.
If, like me, you have a taste for the history of science, check out this nice essay by Jeremy John on the challenge of preserving science’s historical documentation now that letters, diaries, and lab notebooks have been replaced by digital tools and media.
Some amusing photos of and by our troops overseas.

George Will v Public Plan, refereed by Nate Silver. Will loses.

Nate Silver makes George Will clear:

Will’s argument is apparently this: The government does not need to make a profit and will have greater leverage with providers; therefore it will deliver the same service for less money. That’s unfair!
Is this really the best argument that one of the most prominent intellectual conservatives can mount against the public option?

Post is a bit longish for tweetish attention spans — but a great exposure of the real objection to public plans (Congressional conflicts of interest notwithstanding), and of why no real competition exists in the insurance industry at present anyway.